Following a rollover accident that injured 11 people, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) will consider installing seat belts in its buses, Scott Condon reports in The Aspen Times. The full board approved the feasibility study at the agency’s monthly meeting on Thursday, after it was suggested by Jacque Whitsitt, chairwoman of RFTA’s board of directors.
The rollover accident occurred on the evening of October 26 when a westbound RFTA bus on Highway 82 came upon a slow-moving tractor that had lights but no slow-moving-vehicle sign, according to a Colorado State Patrol accident report, Condon writes. When the bus driver swerved to miss the tractor, he lost control of the vehicle, hit a barrier and rolled. Three of the 11 passengers brought to hospitals had serious injuries.
RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship said his preliminary impression is that seat belts are common on “over the road” buses that travel long distances, such as Greyhound and charters. They are less common in short-haul transit buses such as those RFTA uses, he said. Seat belts have become more common in school buses in recent years. The Aspen School District has offered seat belts on school buses since 1985. Use is optional. A parent of students in Glenwood Springs said seat belts are available on school buses in that district but rarely are used.
In a USA Today article, Joan Lowry writes that about half of the fatalities resulting from crashes involving large buses used for tours, charters and intercity passenger service are the result of rollovers, and about 70% of those killed in such accidents were ejected from the buses. It was 45 years ago that a drunk driver on a California highway hit a bus going to Las Vegas, killing 19, a death toll that investigators said was partly due to a lack of seat belts, Lowry writes. She adds: “But 45 years later, safety advocates are still waiting for the government to act on seat belts and other measures to protect bus passengers.”
The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly called for seat belts in buses. The board has also recommended stronger windows that won’t pop in a collision, thus keeping passengers from being ejected, and roofs that resist being crushed. But none of these features, which have long been standard in cars, have been required, Lowry notes, although hundreds of bus passengers have been killed and more have been injured over the years.
In 2009, the safety board said government inaction was partly responsible for the severity of injuries in a rollover crash near Mexican Hat, Utah, which killed 9 skiers and injured 43. Then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood promised the department would act to improve motorcoach safety, including requiring seat belts. Last year, when that still hadn’t happened, Congress wrapped bus safety improvements into a larger transportation bill, which was signed into law. Regulations requiring seat belts on new buses were due in September, but are still under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Other regulations on windows and roofs are due by Sept. 30, 2014, but safety advocates said they doubt the government will meet that deadline since it is less than a year away and regulations haven’t even been proposed, let alone made final.
According to the American Bus Association (ABA), large buses cost between $350,000 and $500,000, Lowry writes, and installing seat belts would add about $13,000 to the price of a new bus. There are 29,000 commercial buses in the U.S., which transport more than 700 million passengers a year; that is roughly equivalent to the number of passengers who travel on planes in the U.S. annually, Lowry writes. So far this year, 23 people have been killed in bus accidents and 329 injured, according to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Lowry points out that in Europe and Australia, seat belts have been required on buses since the 1990s. She quotes Dan Ronan, an ABA spokesman, who says that manufacturers have recently been including seat belts on most new buses. However, buses are typically on the road for 20 to 25 years, Lowry writes, and even if the government were to issue regulations for seat belts on buses immediately, it would probably be years before all buses on the roads have them.
Retrofitting seat belts on existing buses is more expensive than adding the belts to new ones, and the industry opposes such a requirement, Lowry writes. She notes that seats not designed to have belts might not be strong enough to withstand them.
The editorial board of beaumontenterprise.com weighs in:
It is time … to break the logjam over seat belts on commercial buses. Seat belts are required everywhere else, from personal vehicles to commercial airplanes. Not one more commercial bus passenger should be killed or injured for lack of a seat belt.
Here is a short documentary on the RFTA’s history: